Sunday, 2 September 2012
Pay-Per-Review - Debbie Bennett
The New York Times recently ran an article online about the morality of paying for a book review. It's generated quite a bit of interest in the online writing communities and in the comments following the article. In fact I'm surprised our own Guardian online hasn't jumped on the bandwagon as it generally has a lot to say about ebook publishing.
In a nutshell, the article concerns a man who made a lot of money matching up authors who wanted "favourable" online reviews for their books with people who were happy to write such reviews - for a fee. Note that I make no mention of books actually being read here - in many cases that seems to be an irrelevant and completely unnecessary part of writing a book review.
Most of the online debate seems to concentrate on the author of the book paying for a review. But nobody has really discussed the other side of the coin - whether it's right for a reviewer to accept payment for a review, favourable or otherwise.
Now I'm sure those of us who review books at least try to read the entire book before we commit fingers to keyboard. Sometimes we don't get all the way through; sometimes it's not our cup of tea, sometimes the book really is unreadable, but we all have our own methods of dealing with such things and coming out with a review that is fair, balanced and reflects the quality of the work. Such is how it should be. In most cases there is always something nice to say, even if the overall effect is less than palatable. But would we accept payment for a review? And if we did, would the review be biased, or be perceived to be biased?
Now here is where the argument starts to break down or at least become more complex. You see I have been paid to write reviews. I'm talking pre-ebooks, before self publishing became at least semi-respectable (I'm sure one day we will achieve complete respectability...) and back in the 1990s when I used to review traditionally published books for a national magazine - the sort you could (and still can) buy in WH Smiths and larger newsagents. There was a book section that carried reviews and my reviews were in there. I was paid £15 per review by the magazine regardless of length and the books came via the person who was the overall editor of the book review pages. I had a choice whether or not to accept the book on offer and while I never actually asked the question, I do wonder that if I had written negative reviews, whether I would have been given any more books.
I don't write bad reviews often. I'm more inclined to skip the book - after all, why would I want to waste my precious time reading a book I'm not enjoying? But I do very occasionally give 2* and 3* reviews on goodreads and amazon, although these are usually for traditionally-published books. Even so, they are, I hope, constructive, fair and balanced reviews. I work on the theory that I myself would not have an issue with a bad review of my books, so long as the reviewer had clearly read the book and at least tried to explain what they didn't like. I have a stunningly bad 1* review on goodreads of which I'm really rather proud - the reader hated my book so much that I'm impressed to have elicited such a strong emotional response.
So is it right to accept payment for a review (other than a free copy of the book)? I'm inclined to say no, but then there are people who clearly make a living out of reviewing things - do the media critics who review theatre and films for the Guardian or the Sunday Times really not get paid? Or is the issue actually with the person who pays - it's an acceptable practice as long as it isn't the author who is paying? Maybe the problem is in the soliciting of the review, rather than the writing.
Amazon and other online review sites are already losing credibility. Too many 5* reviews from friends and family, too many 1* reviews from competitors or people with an axe to grind. At some point, it will blow up in our faces as indie authors. Maybe we really do need to be pushing the independent review sites like Indie Ebook Review and others.